Alan Cox and the End of an Era


In the beginning, free software was an activity conducted on the margins - using spare time on a university's computers, or the result of lonely bedroom hacking.

One of the key moments in the evolution of free software was when hackers began to get jobs - often quite remunerative jobs - with one of the new open source companies that sprang up in the late 1990s. For more or less the first time, coders could make a good salary doing what they loved, and businesses could be successful paying them to write code that would be given away.

Two companies stood out for the collections of hacking talent that they built up. One was Linuxcare, which had the apparently great idea of offering independent support for a wide range of free software. This meant that it needed experts on the subject, and none were more expert than the people who had actually written the code it was supporting.

This led to stars like Andrew Tridgell, the creator of Samba, joining the company. Unfortunately, Linuxcare suffered a double hit: the dotcom crash, and some rather bizarre personnel problems. As a result, its starry hires were soon cast to the wind's four quarters, and the name "Linuxcare" has all but been forgotten.

The other company that made a conscious effort to sweep up relevant hacker talent is happily not only still with us, but thriving. Red Hat has recently posted excellent financial results, and remains arguably the leading open source company. Given its focus on GNU/Linux, it naturally tended to recruit the top people there - people like David Miller, Stephen Tweedie and Alan Cox.

Cox was born in Solihull, and studied at universities in Wales. He was a keen Amiga hacker, and contemplated writing an entirely new operating system for that machine, but decided that "writing file system stuff was too hard for one person to do." So he was naturally impressed to discover that a crazy Finn had done precisely that, as he learned through following the Minix newsgroups where Linus made his early announcements. Cox began hacking on version 0.11 of the kernel, and was soon involved in one of the most important projects of the nascent operating system: getting the networking sorted out.

After this crucial contribution, Cox effectively became Number 2 in the Linux kernel devlopment team. As such, he was a natural candidate for Red Hat when the company started making hackers offers they couldn't refuse. Thanks, in part, to the networking code he had helped to develop, he was able to work from his home in Wales, where he has also become an important voice in UK debates about software patents and ramifications of technology issues for civil liberties.

And now, it seems, after ten years at the company, Cox is leaving Red Hat:

I will be departing Red Hat mid January having handed in my notice. I'm not going to be spending more time with the family, gardening or other such wonderous things. I'm leaving on good terms and strongly supporting the work Red Hat is doing.

I've been at Red Hat for ten years as contractor and employee and now have an opportunity to get even closer to the low level stuff that interests me most. Barring last minute glitches I shall be relocating to Intel (logically at least, physically I'm not going anywhere) and still be working on Linux and free software stuff.

I know some people will wonder what it means for Red Hat engineering. Red Hat has a solid, world class, engineering team and my departure will have no effect on their ability to deliver.

The last comment is probably true, but perhaps not quite for the obvious reasons.

Red Hat has evolved into almost a classic open source company, and has helped define the business models of an entire industry segment. But as it has matured, it has also changed. No longer is it honing the basic GNU/Linux code to make it a plausible competitor to the various flavours of Unix, and Windows.

Instead, it has started moving up the open source enterprise stack, a process that began with the acquisition of the middleware JBoss, and which now encompasses offerings like the Red Hat Exchange:

Red Hat Exchange (RHX) is a partner ecosystem designed to close the gap between business problems and value-driven IT solutions by connecting enterprises with complete open source solutions from the operating system up. Customers can trust RHX to guide them when making decisions that deliver real value while providing alternatives to restrictive proprietary offerings.

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